America: Shining City upon a Hill

Amid foreign and domestic policy conundrums, President Obama recently found solace in overseas popularity polls showing America is viewed more favorably than under his predecessor. A pyrrhic victory, reflecting foreigners’ umbrage in American exceptionalism -- they’d rather we’d be one of the club, leading from behind, if at all.  

But we almost can’t help it.  We gained our independence from the British along with a large dose of exceptionalism.  Indeed, in his inspirational “City upon a Hill” sermon in 1630, Puritan minister John Winthrop exhorted future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill,” watched by the world.  A theme echoed down the centuries including most famously by Ronald Reagan in his farewell address.

American exceptionalism is as embedded in our national ethos as the American Dream.  As we prepare to celebrate another high-spirited Independence Day, let’s remind ourselves how our exceptionalism took root, as it will once again be the bulwark for our “shining city upon a hill.”

An enduring myth of America’s revolution was that Paul Revere rode to Concord yelling “The British are coming…!”  Two problems there:  it was a secret mission, stealth was key; but more obviously, the British were already here.  And there.  Everywhere!  I bet many of them agreed with their English compatriot, Thomas Paine, the brilliant pamphleteer for liberty, that they were on the cusp of forming an exceptional society.

America’s founders were overwhelmingly British.  Eight Presidents were born British subjects. They propelled America’s Manifest Destiny as the new nation spread exceptionalism over a beckoning expanse.

Jefferson was very keen to extend America’s frontiers.  Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, David Crockett were just some of the great explorers who followed the sun west. They all were steeped in British heritage.

Many trailblazers followed on famous trails like the Oregon Trail carved out by pioneers with ties to Britain.  For example, The Peoria Party was a group of pioneers who embarked upon a mission to colonize the great Oregon Country on behalf of the U.S.  Many were born in England.

The Santa Fe Trail was founded by William Becknell, whose ancestors hailed from Sussex in England.

Many of the Mormons who carved pathways through awe-inspiring landscapes in search of the Great Basin were ensconced in British lineage.

Meanwhile, the British Navy, sailing the oceans and seas imperiously in splendid and formidable ships, enforced Monroe’s doctrine, allowing America to be preeminent over her expanding domain.  

Within 100 years of proudly proclaiming her political independence to the world, America had fulfilled Jefferson’s wish of expanding across the entire northern continent.  During that process, Great Britain was by far the largest investor in American land development, railroads, mining, cattle ranching, the telegraph labyrinth and heavy industry. By the time Ellis Island opened as a federal immigration station in 1892, the city upon the hill was awash in red, white and blue – national colors of Great Britain, coincidentally. 

Even if it elicits unpopularity abroad from those who prefer that Obama bow and be diffident, America will overcome his disastrous presidency.  We will once again be as President Reagan described “…a proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.”

We don’t mean to be condescending, but we are still atop the “shining city upon a hill.”  We are America the Beautiful, and God shed His grace on thee.  Happy 4th of July.  By Noel S. Williams

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